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Building a FIREWALL: A more holistic solution to wildfires

by Joe Selmont  |   

Mohammad Heidari, FIREWALL principal investigator and an assistant professor of electrical engineering with the UAA College of Engineering
UAA Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Mohammad Heidari Kapourchali, photographed near a powerline easement on the Anchorage Hillside, an area with a high potential for wildfires. Kapourchali is the principal investigator on Foundations for Improving Resilience in the Energy Sector Against Wildfires on Alaskan Lands (FIREWALL), which aims to reduce the vulnerability of Alaska's power grid to wildfires. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

In 2021, wildfires will have impacted at least 250,000 acres of land in Alaska. To put this number in perspective, that’s 189,000 football fields, 160 Kincaid Parks or the entire Chugach State Park plus another 50,000 acres. And this has been a relatively calm year. Over two million acres burned in 2019. In 2004, the worst year on record, it was a whopping 6.6 million. To say that Alaska has a wildfire problem would be putting it mildly.

The bad news is that wildfires are expected to increase in both frequency and magnitude in the coming years due to the effects of rising global temperatures. However, there’s also good news: several Alaska organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors are striving to decrease the likelihood of wildfires near populated regions and mitigate the harm to life and property when fires do break out. And now, there is a new UAA-led project supported by the National Science Foundation that is bringing these organizations together.

The FIREWALL project — which is short for Foundations for Improving Resilience in the Energy Sector Against Wildfires on Alaskan Lands — aims to identify synergies by breaking down silos between the organizations involved in wildfire prevention and mitigation. The project team is leading by example, with representatives from different disciplines and three different universities, UAA, UAF and George Washington University. The first FIREWALL Workshop was held in September, bringing together numerous stakeholders, including public and private land managers, energy sector professionals, scientists, engineers, public health experts and state and federal government officials. During seven panels on various topics, the participants discussed the problem of wildfires from their unique perspectives and began building bridges between those perspectives. The workshop also featured a keynote address from Senator Lisa Murkowski.

“I am deeply impressed by the passion that so many people brought to the first FIREWALL Workshop,” said Mohammad Heidari, who is the project’s principal investigator and an assistant professor of electrical engineering with the UAA College of Engineering. “I think everyone walked away from the workshop with a greater appreciation for Alaska’s complex system of wildfire mitigation and prevention. I think we took an important first step toward developing a more holistic understanding.”

Heidari noted that the wildfire prevention and mitigation system is especially complex in Alaska. This is due in part to the nature of Alaska’s energy sector, which is a patchwork of “microgrids” that supply power to relatively few households. In fact, many of Alaska’s towns and villages are totally disconnected from other communities. Even the electric grid along Alaska’s Railbelt is on its own “island” separated from the rest of the United States. This should not come as a big surprise, considering Alaska’s dispersed population and vast wilderness.

Unfortunately, this means that Alaska’s energy sector can be vulnerable to wildfire damage. In the Lower 48, if a wildfire destroys a powerline, then energy utilities can usually redirect electricity from a neighboring community to minimize the duration and breadth of blackouts. In many parts of Alaska, there simply aren’t neighboring communities, and it could take days or weeks to repair damage in remote parts of the state.

“This can be extremely dangerous for people relying on that power supply, such as people who require electricity-dependent medical equipment,” said Heidari. “And it can also be very disruptive to everyday lives.”

However, Alaska’s microgrids also have some advantages. A localized system of power production, consumption and storage can more easily take advantage of an area’s natural resources, including solar, wind or other renewable energies. In most of the United States, if a community becomes totally cut off from the grid, there are very few options for backup power. Some larger facilities like schools and hospitals keep backup generators, but most family homes do not. 

“At first, we thought that we would have a lot to learn from places like California and Brazil, places with big, interconnected power grids where they are also developing solutions to combat some truly catastrophic wildfires,” said Heidari. “And now we’re thinking that it could be a two-way exchange, that those places might also be able to learn from us, from our way of doing things.”

For example, an energy network could be developed that combines the best parts of Alaska’s system of microgrids and the systems of massive electric grids in the Lower 48. Heidari envisions a series of interconnected microgrids with modular and mobile power sources, each supplying power to a small number of households but with the ability to draw power from elsewhere when something goes wrong. 

“Of course, we will see where the FIREWALL project takes us,” said Heidari. “This is a highly collaborative project, and our hope is to move forward collectively to identify solutions that help us right here in Alaska. At the same time, there’s something Senator Murkowski said in her keynote that really stuck with me. To paraphrase, she said that if we can solve this problem in Alaska, with all of the challenges posed by our unique circumstances, then we can solve it anywhere.”

 

The FIREWALL project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. You can find more information about FIREWALL on the project website

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